Meet Shizuka, the Music Teacher in Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars

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The lives of three women—Katrina, Shizuka, and Lan—become entangled by chance and fate in Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, a defiantly joyful adventure publishing September 28th with Tor Books. From the author:

Shizuka is my favorite character because I identify with her. I look at my past relations, and for each I have entire symphonies of full of regret. Shizuka is torn between the damnation she knows she brings, and letting herself exist and hope, anyway. With every breath, Shizuka recalls lost love, forgotten sonatas and ever-present regret…and still she tries to make herself beautiful for the music yet to come.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt below—meet Shizuka, and check back later this week for additional excerpts!

Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.

When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.

But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.

As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.

 

 

Shizuka Satomi opened her eyes. Twenty-two hours ago, she had been in Tokyo.

And now?

As if on cue, Shizuka’s thoughts were interrupted by a most horrible sound, as if a violin were choking on a windshield wiper.

Who could possibly be creating such infernal—

Oh. Of course.

Shizuka stilled her breathing and listened further. In addition to the rooster, there were also two hens. Pigeons, four of them. A duck. An old Asian woman humming a pentatonic folk song. A freeway in the distance. And someone just drove up in a Mercedes.

No other place sounded like this.

The Aguilars lived in the yellow house. On the corner were the Laus, and next door, the Lieus.

This was her house in Los Angeles… Monterey Park to be exact.

She was home.

 

Shizuka looked about her room. Thanks to Astrid, her move was already complete. Clothing, furniture, her instruments, all were ready and waiting. Her car had made the trip from Japan and was parked in the driveway downstairs.

The only item she had personally brought with her lay on her nightstand. It was a long and thin music case. Old, battered, yet exquisitely made, what it held seemed almost impatient, calling from just beyond hearing.

Not yet, Shizuka thought. But soon.

As the rooster crowed again, Shizuka stood and stretched. She had timed her sleep perfectly. Even with the jet lag, she felt as if she had just taken a refreshing afternoon nap. Of course, she’d be exhausted in the evening, but if all went as planned, she would have already found who she was looking for.

 

By the time Shizuka came downstairs, Astrid already had her breakfast ready—rice porridge, hot tea, a soft-boiled egg.

There was also a peeled tangerine.

“Astrid, I didn’t ask for—”

“From Mrs. Aguilar,” Astrid explained. “She brought a whole bag. Won’t you have one? They’re really sweet.”

Shizuka finished her egg, toast, and tea.

“I’d rather not give my body any surprises while it’s still unsure of the time zone.”

Astrid shrugged. “But Mrs. Aguilar said you always liked their tangerines.”

It was wonderfully sweet, just as always—and juicier than a winter fruit had any right to be. Every neighborhood should have a Mrs. Aguilar…

“Miss Satomi?”

“Yes? Oh, I just drifted a little.”

Astrid frowned. “Miss Satomi, why don’t you rest? It’s only the preliminaries. The finals won’t be held until next week, and Ms. Grohl is sure to advance.”

Shizuka reapplied her lipstick, a little powder, then reached for her sunglasses.

“If she is really the seventh, that girl will have no need for the finals, will she?”

***

 

Six times, Shizuka Satomi had created brilliance. Six times, she had taken an aspiring musician, trained them, formed them, and created a star.

Even more incredible, while most teachers seemed to cultivate a characteristic sound or style, Satomi’s students were at turns icy, devastating, blinding, delicate, frenetic, breathtakingly sensual…

Her success, her touch, the effortless, almost inevitable way she pulled genius after genius from thin air, was uncanny, almost supernatural.

Little wonder, then, that people began to call her the Queen of Hell.

However, it had been over a decade since she had taken on a new student.

Why?

Some believed she was the victim of a shattered heart. Before his death, Satomi’s last student, Yifeng Brian Zheng, had been seen with her in Annecy, laughing over hot chocolate and mille-feuille. The dashing young violinist had thanked her from every stage he played; and in a television interview, he claimed it was only after studying with Shizuka Satomi that he understood the true meaning of love.

Perhaps they’d been more than teacher and student?

Others surmised that the reason was more mundane, that she might have simply retired. The Queen of Hell had taught Yifeng Zheng, who had followed Kiana Choi, who had followed Sabrina Eisen. And so on and so on.

Even if she found another, what would be left to accomplish?

Whatever the reason, with each passing year, more people assumed that the Queen of Hell had no intention of ever teaching again.

 

Idiots.

For ten years, Shizuka Satomi had been searching. From Lausanne, Salzburg, Sydney, most recently Tokyo, she had listened, searched prospect after prospect.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

Not that they didn’t try. Not that musicians had not traveled to her, offered her everything they had, all they could imagine.

As if all they could imagine could be close to enough.

 

Others around her, including Tremon Philippe himself, had suggested she was being too selective, perhaps even arbitrary. Surely over the past ten years, she had found musicians who might be appropriate.

Of course she had.

Her previous six students had been an almost uninterrupted string of genius. All had been perfectly appropriate. Yet, with each one, Shizuka became more and more aware that something was wrong. No. Something was missing. As she watched each of them shine and fall, sparkle and burn, Shizuka became more and more obsessed with a music playing just beyond hearing—maddeningly familiar, yet always beyond her grasp.

Until finally, in Tokyo, she heard it.

Through the din of thirteen million people, and vending machines, ramen joints, Internet cafés, electric trains, and cherry blossoms for each of them twice over, she heard it—coming not from within that city, but from far across the sea.

Coming from, of all places, home.

 

Shizuka swerved past a very slow Lexus, then accelerated onto Huntington Drive.

The San Gabriel Valley resembled an Asian-American Monopoly board. Cambodians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Laotians, Vietnamese-Chinese, a few Koreans, even some Japanese crisscrossed past the working-class neighborhoods of Rosemead, Monterey Park, El Monte, through middle-class Temple City, San Gabriel, and Alhambra, all the way up to Boardwalk and Park Place—San Marino and Arcadia, where Shizuka was arriving now.

She could feel herself breathing faster as she passed the Santa Anita Plaza, a gilded shopping mall where one might procure truffle-filled dumplings, a Hello Kitty latte, and a two-thousand-dollar box of Chinese bird nest.

Quickly, she sped by the Santa Anita racetrack, home to the fashionable 626 Night Market, drawing Asians of all persuasions for a night of stinky tofu, boba, taro macaroons, and international indie film screenings.

Until finally, she arrived at her destination: Xinhua Phoenix Hall.

 

Xinhua Phoenix Hall was actually the smaller of two buildings designed by the renowned Chinese architect An Wei. Across the courtyard, still shrouded in construction covers, was the site of Xinhua Phoenix Investment Bank’s grand “Golden Friendship Pavilion,” due to open the following year.

Between them was a massive fountain, in the shape of an ever-flowing teapot. Inscribed in its side was a carved and gilded 永, the character for Eternity.

It had seemed like 永 since Shizuka had so anticipated a performance. She didn’t know exactly how she knew, but she knew. And when Tremon Philippe mentioned the Grohl girl, that was confirmation enough.

By now, she could almost feel it physically pulling her—a timeless music that her other students, for all their genius, had only been able to trace.

Shizuka Satomi took a deep breath. There was no need to hurry. The Queen of Hell did not hurry.

She checked her makeup one last time, then put on her sunglasses.

Here would be her last and seventh student.

Here would be her last and seventh soul.

And then, what would be left to accomplish?

Everything.

 

Excerpted from Light From Uncommon Stars, copyright © 2021 by Ryka Aoki.

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